Charles Duhigg

The Daily Practice of Accepting Death

Of all the thoughts that bounce around our skulls each day, death is rarely one of them. There has never been a safer time to be alive.

And still, it's right there, always. 

In his new book, Show Your Work!, Austin Kleon recommends the daily practice of reading obituaries. Kleon explains:

Obituaries are like near-death experiences for cowards.

You don't have to go looking for trouble to practice realizing the terrifying truth that this will end. Meditate on it enough and it should be your guide.

Samurais trained relentlessly. They strongly believed you should always “be prepared” (they were like the deadliest Boy Scouts imaginable.)

— Eric Barker

This is the strategy of the samurai. Business Insider blogger Eric Barker recently questioned what made ancient samurais so cool with death being in their job description. The answer: control. Meditating on the ultimate possibility of being stabbed in battle gave them clarity and purpose. They didn't need to distract or busy themselves with thoughts about all the dangers. They just fought. 

It wasn't a matter of life or death when Michael Phelps hit the water, but the same idea applies when he swam in the 2008 Summer Olympics. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, wrote that Phelps was so ingrained in his process that he was prepared for any scenario. And when water filled Phelps' goggles halfway through the 200-meter butterfly race, he was able to keep calm and carry on, blindly swimming to victory, another gold medal and a world record.

You need to quiet your mind from the destructiveness of your own thoughts. If you can calmly comprehend the worst case scenario and prepare for it, there is no reason to panic. Yes, you will fail and, yes, you will die. If you can remind yourself of that, you'll have the inspiration to live without fear stalling or freezing you. 

Of course, it's all in how you accept it. I wrote an obituary for myself in an undergraduate journalism class and it was crushing. I was too young to feel like I accomplished anything and death would have meant ultimate failure. Life felt reduced to a paragraph.

With death as the backdrop, the all-important questions of life can be answered every day when you take action. Waking up to know it could end means you can cherish every breath, e-mail, hug, or beer. You have a plan of action when shit goes down. You're always ready to spring into sword-wielding, blind-swimming action.

If you get one life to live and one obituary to sum up your days, what do you want it to say? 

The New Glass Half Perspective

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There is no denying a good overnight success story. It is the simple reminder that being human means we have fewer and fewer limits. Technology only continues to make it possible for anyone to warp their life, business, or movement in an instant. It is Tim Ferriss. It is Kickstarter. It is the human brain.

We want change and we want it fast. Why not? If you start to believe that there is a single answer to your happiness out there, wouldn't you sprint to it if you could? Of course, it's never been that simple. Happiness is not a destination, and there are pitfalls and dangers at every level. We're distracted by our habits - our hobbies, diets, enemies and upbringing. 

Charles Duhigg gives some hope with what he calls "keystone habits" in his best-selling book The Power of Habit. Of these powerful, select habits, Duhigg wrote that they "say that success doesn't depend on getting every single thing right but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers".  

Paul O'Neill is one of Duhigg's best examples. In 1987, O'Neill, a former successful government official, was asked to lead the transformation of Alcoa, one of the world's largest aluminum manufacturing companies. With unshakeable confidence, O'Neill took the CEO helm and demanded the entire international corporation make worker safety their number one priority. There was no talk of wages, profits, business relationships or parking spaces; O'Neill spoke only of safety and took steps at the most granular levels to make it happen. And he knew what he was doing.

Slowly and surely, O'Neill's Alcoa was invigorated and clear on their mission. The new strategy simplified everything down and employees became more productive, alert and proud. Business flourished and on top of everything else, everyone was safe.

It is the most insulting and inspiring concept to consider that we're all only a millimeter or a habit away from our dreams. It's the new glass half-full or half-empty question. 

The undeniable truth is that the glass is never full, there will always be problems. It is at the core of Buddhist spirituality and every entrepreneurial adventure. The challenge itself of our bodies is another: to keep them eating, sleeping, and breathing as long as we can. It is what Ernest Becker was saying in The Denial of Death - "The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive." 

It makes it worth it to know it can end. When it comes to the keystone habit that could change it all, to believe in one side means you have to believe in the other. If it's always possible we can die in a car crash coming home from work tonight, shouldn't it be just as possible we can turn a mental corner and simply decide to live a life forever full of blinding passion?

The world can be a cruel place, we can't deny that. And it can offer you an amazing journey. It doesn't always have to be bigger, faster, and stronger when you can find attention, connection and awareness.

And it's not that life happens to you, it's that you are ready for it. Meditate on this simple fact: you're alive and you could be dead. Be prepared for the million dollar book deal and the threat of cancer. Know there can be come-hither glances, broken legs and surprise parties. Make your life better, one decision at a time. Find the small victories that make you come alive and forget death. No rush, no pressure. We can never know what tomorrow will bring. After all, it is as Seneca wrote "not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it."